'The Aristocrats' Director Paul Provenza: The Onion's Apology To Quvenzhané Wallis Was 'Problematic'
When The Onion's CEO Steve Hannah publicly apologized last week for the satirical newspaper's controversial Oscar-night tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, two thoughts crossed my mind: 1) It's not a good day for comedy when a satirical publication says it's sorry for a joke that was not actually about the Beasts of the Southern Wild actress. And 2) what would Paul Provenza make of this?
In addition to being a veteran stand-up comic and actor, Provenza directed The Aristocrats, one of the finest dissections of comedy in any media (and not because I'm in it). The 2005 documentary deconstructs one of the oldest and dirtiest jokes in stand-up — the film's title is its punchline — and when I shot my segment with Provenza, I quickly learned that, in addition to being a very funny guy, he's a scholar of humor, who's really good at explaining why something is funny — or not.
'The Onion': The Quvenzhané Wallis Controversy
So, in the aftermath of the Wallis controversy, I emailed Provenza to get his analysis of the situation. Excerpts of his assessment appear below, but, first, an unexpurgated recap of what happened last week for anyone who was focusing on the sequestration crisis instead. If you're offended by the word "cunt," then stop reading now, because the term appears quite a bit in the following passages, and, in the context of this discussion, I think it's justified. Also, as Provenza noted, censoring the word, "just adds to the irony" of the controversy.
Here's what The Onion initially tweeted during the Academy Awards on Feb. 24. After initially obscuring the offending word, the tweet was eventually disappeared as the backlash grew:
"Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?"
The Onion's Apology
Here is the apology that Hannah posted on The Onion's Facebook page on Monday, Feb. 25:
On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.
No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.
The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.
In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.
Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.
Steve Hannah CEO The Onion
Why The Onion's Apology Is Problematic
Take it away, Professor Provenza:
I think the crux of it is that the whole issue has more to do with Twitter than it has to do with comedy. Not completely, but largely. Twitter is a big, broad audience, and it's a tough room to 'read', particularly with a joke this harsh.
But the joke is absolutely misunderstood in most of the chatter. It is NOT a joke calling that sweet little girl a cunt. It's not maligning her in any way whatsoever — it is saying exactly the opposite. The joke rests squarely on the fact that Quvenzhané Wallis is the very last person you'd ever want to call a cunt. Not even the most steadfast cynic can find her anything but innocent, beautiful and adorable, and that's the whole point of the joke: The Hollywood schadenfreude and the palpable desperation that runs through much of the movie biz inspires the idea that someone, somewhere in Oscartown is already spreading vicious rumors about her. The fact that it is so inappropriate to say anything like that about her is precisely the basis — and I believe the point — of the Tweet. It was meant as a satirical comment about Hollywood and the pretense that everybody at the Oscars loves each other so much. It's all golden statues and lavish praise — and is, The Onion suggests, about as phony as it gets.
SO The Onion's apology is problematic. It suggests they did insult her, and they're sorry about it. Which is not the case. They offended, yes — not by insulting Quvenzhané Wallis, but by using the word "cunt" in the first place. And what could they expect, putting a most innocent, beloved 9 year old in the same sentence with perhaps the second most reviled word in the English language? That's not the norm for The Onion, which usually does a much more deft job of communicating harsh comic ideas, but, comedically speaking, the joke is meant to be a bludgeon. So, I really can't fault it on that score. It's not meant to be a cleverly disguised notion. It's meant to be as harsh as the ugly truth of envy, back-biting and negativity that Hollywood embodies. No one is spared, no matter how sweet and pure and innocent.
Provenza goes on to point out that launching the Wallis joke into the Twitterverse put The Onion in "a difficult place."